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November 4, 2015

Players Prefer Presentation

Post-Moneyball's Clubability

by Meg Rowley


The Mariners found their guy in Jerry Dipoto, and he found his guy in former catcher and Angels executive Scott Servais. The Phillies found their guy in that same Angels front office, hiring Dartmouth grad Matt Kentak. The Angels found in Billy Eppler their guy to replace those guys. The Brewers made fresh-faced Harvard man David Stearns their fresh-faced Harvard man.

And then these guys, and other guys, started hiring their guys: The Marlins chose Don Mattingly, the Padres chose Andy Green, the Nationals chose Bud Black—then lost him with a lowball offer so that now the Dodgers might choose him. And then, on Tuesday, a minor miracle: Washington chose Dusty Baker, the first move in months to suggest this isn’t all just a little bit of history repeating. Though it probably is.

After Servais’ Mariners press conference, much was made of the rapport between the new manager and the new GM, their previous collaboration, and the importance of speaking the same language. This is a crucial phrase, nearly as troubling in the figurative meaning as if it were literal. At the heart of the push for front office and managerial diversity is the desire to expand the range of common language.

The existing language of the modern front office might make those already on the inside more comfortable, but it isn’t the only way to talk about baseball, and it certainly isn’t the only or even the best way to move the game forward. Look at the organizations that we just saw in the World Series: The Royals and Mets took very different routes to arrive at the top of the baseball world, as did the Giants in 2014, and the Red Sox in 2013. There are very different routes available. In a game constantly in search of the next edge, do we really think when the front office sings a universal refrain of “market inefficiency” it can't use those lyrics to actually find the next one?

The problem we now face is a new iteration of an old problem: The idea that there is only one way to win the game, and only a small talent pool that can affect such an approach. In the past, it was the wise (often white) former player. Now, it’s the well-educated stathead. In the hands of analytically minded executives who claim to know better, we risk the game stagnating in a new way, succumbing to the mistaken notion so readily disproved that there is only one way to baseball successfully. That overly narrow understanding of the game raises the very real danger that we will give back the previous gains of the Selig Rule, maligning baseball progress and social progress at the same time.

Now, let’s establish an operating assumption: This problem isn’t caused by proactive machinations to exclude women and minorities from hiring. It’s not owners, presidents or GMs down there forfeiting wins to make some bigoted stance. The bulk of the problem is that, at some point, each hire seems to start with “Hey, these are the folks I know. And, boy, I know a lot of white men who went to Harvard or played baseball. Well, anyway!” The talent pool is strongly skewed.

When entry-level baseball operations pay as poorly as they do now (assuming they pay at all), the outline of the candidate able to fill that role is pretty strongly etched. It isn’t a matter of some people being willing to endure the hustle while others eschew it. It’s a matter of the being able to endure the hustle at all, so that the individuals often represent a very narrow socioeconomic and demographic profile. Not every Ivy League graduate who wants to start scouting or developing analytics comes from a financially privileged background, of course, and not every person on that side of the game is an Ivy League graduate. Certainly these guys (and they are overwhelmingly guys) work very hard, and accept the reality of low-paying or unpaid entry-level positions and internships. But the difference between that being a burden of youth and being flat out untenable is a big part of the difference between the front offices we have and the ones we say we want. And that doesn’t even consider the self-selection that likely occurs when women and people of color look to the top and see so few faces like their own. Why endure that thankless hustle if you feel you have no realistic hope of advancing? Or to put it another way: How many minor leaguers would endure the long slog of Low-A baseball if they looked up and saw virtually no one who looked like them in the majors?

Managers are a sad extension of this penchant for intellectual cohesion. Where the general managers of the future face the dueling pressures of financial uncertainty at the junior levels and grim prospects at the senior levels, the managerial pool is theoretically much larger. After all, the world is full to bursting with former players and coaches, many of whom are men of color, many of whom are qualified potential skippers. But when the deciding criteria is the front office’s ability to drive (or control) the decision-making in the dugout—and it wasn’t always—the front office is likely to lean toward the ones whose thinking falls somewhere between concurrence and obedience.

All of which is pretty dispiriting coming from a crowd that itself fought so long for relevance in front offices across the league. This isn’t to suggest that there aren't women and people of color who are statheads, anymore than it would be reasonable to suggest that all former players are white. But after a decade of painful progress to advance women and minorities to positions of authority, a generation of Ivy Leaguers are falling into the exact same traps: showing a predilection for “Clubability,” as Michael Lewis called it, over something new, something innovative, or even something marginally uncomfortable. They hire people like them. Instead of the Platonic ideal of a baseball organization, one predicated on the ability to stare unflinchingly at our heroes and value underutilized skills, what we get is a whole bunch of history repeating from the very people who were supposed to remind us that clubability is not necessarily indicative of future performance.

Baseball’s failure of diversity can be seen in the front office and the dugout, both manifesting symptoms of the same disease: prizing a view of the front office at once overbroad and myopic, fetishizing the intellectual sameness of the game’s acolytes so greatly that complying with a rigid understanding of how to win takes precedence over cultivating qualified candidates of a slightly different mold. The A’s under Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta didn’t succeed because DePodesta had a Harvard degree; they succeeded because they were willing to look beyond baseball as we understood it then and ask how we might understand it better.

So what should we do to fix it? Untangling the cross-cutting issues of class, gender and race that make baseball operations jobs difficult to attain will take detailed study and a comprehensive program on par with MLB’s attempts to eliminate performance enhancing drugs. It requires nuance and a lot of uncomfortable, frank conversations about where the game is and where it needs to go. But we can’t wait for those conversations to fully resolve before doing something.

Baseball should make entry-level positions a feasible financial possibility for a more diverse applicant pool, by requiring teams to create fellowship positions that pay a living wage and are designed to recruit and cultivate women and people of color. It wouldn’t take a Wall Street salary to make these positions livable. But they need to explicitly target a diverse pool of candidates, and then mentor those individuals as their careers progress. Not every one will become a general manager, but it takes the problem head on, creating a cohort that can provide a natural network for them going forward. It puts them in the air supply.

MLB should require the Selig Rule mandate actual interviews rather than mere consideration. Baseball should work to make diverse hires a natural outcome of the process, from the lowliest stat-cruncher all the way to the GM. Whatever they do, they should remove the suggestion. Merely pointing to the top isn’t working; pinning our hopes on an improved pipeline of talent is only a half answer without meaningful mandates at the senior levels. It allows teams far too easy an out. It permits too many organizations to head fake at diversity in their process while hiring the same profile over and over again. It permits inertia and stymies a change in direction.

The bottom line is that team decision-makers are most interested in trying to win, not affect social change. There’s a good case that they’re not doing former, by ignoring intellectual diversity and a broad pool of potentially qualified candidates. But there’s a better case that they’ll never do the latter unless it’s mandated, even when it’s in MLB’s interests. And right.

Ken Rosenthal has rightly noted the need for intellectual diversity, but it is important that we avoid conflating intellectual diversity with racial and gender diversity. They overlap, certainly, but we can’t take our eye off the stated ball of the Selig Rule. We might stumble into racial and gender diversity that way. Or we might end up with front offices of, say, white, male Big 10 graduates. That might represent diversity of a kind, but it’s a fairly narrow sort. We shouldn’t be striving to make all of these candidates the same by narrowing where they come from or what they look like. We should recognize that in a game played across the United States, featuring players from across the world who speak different languages and represent diverse cultures, and fans who dot every strata of American life. A diversity of voices and perspectives on the game isn’t an impediment to success: It’s the way forward. That way forward can, and should, look and sound and think and be a lot of different ways. That’s what makes baseball great. It reflects the people who watch it and play it, letting them come together with those who aren’t like them, while still seeing those who are like them on the field and in the stands. Or at least it ought to.

There have to be more baseball archetypes than the Ivy League Sabermetrics Prodigy and the Grizzled Former Player. The fact that we’re able to speak in terms of archetypes at all is indicative of the problem. Hiring Dusty Baker might be the most encouraging moment of the week—he doesn’t fit that archetype, either by demographics or by age or by what we think we know of the baseball language he speaks. But his hiring, while avoiding an embarrassing near-miss of having no African-American managers for the first time since 1988, doesn’t solve the problem. Not only does baseball compromise its moral imperative as America’s Pastime when it abdicates the responsibility to reflect the mosaic of players and fans who invest so much in it, it risks stagnating. I’m not sure what the mortgage crisis of baseball looks like, but I’m pretty confident that everyone being and thinking the same way for a long time is how we get there. The time for being polite is over. Baseball isn’t taking your suggestion, Mr. Commissioner. It’s time for a much firmer diktat. That’s what it has come to when speaking the same language is part of the problem.

Meg Rowley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Meg's other articles. You can contact Meg by clicking here

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